The Catch

Good morning, it’s Thursday, January 10, 2019. On this date in 1982, the San Francisco 49ers announced a 15-year run of sustained excellence with a thrilling 28-27 win over the much-feared Dallas Cowboys. The NFC championship game was hard-fought and competitive throughout — and didn’t end until Cowboys’ quarterback Danny White fumbled near midfield with a few seconds left. But the game’s iconic play came a moment earlier when 49ers QB Joe Montana rolled out and fired a pass high to the back of the end zone.

Montana didn’t see it — he was knocked on his back — but the Candlestick Park crowd did: Wide receiver Dwight Clark soared high in the air and nabbed the ball with his fingertips. From that day on, the winning touchdown has been known as “The Catch.”

The upshot of the January 10, 1982 game played in front of an exhilarated Bay Area crowd was that one pro football dynasty was sent into eclipse while another arose. Two weeks later, San Francisco would prevail in the Super Bowl, the first of five titles the Niners would celebrate over the next decade and a half.

“The Catch” was memorable partly for who pulled it off: Joe Montana would go on to a Hall of Fame career, as would Niner head coach Bill Walsh. Dwight Clark would win two Super Bowl rings as a player and three more as an executive. It was Coach Walsh who personally secured the services of Clark, who played his collegiate football at Clemson.

Walsh had gone to South Carolina to scout another player, Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller. As it happens, Clark was not only Fuller’s go-to receiver, but his roommate as well. When Walsh told Fuller he’d like to see him throw privately, the coach asked Clark to come along to catch those passes. Clark had a good session, catching every ball thrown his way. But there was something else, something intangible that Walsh noticed.

“I owe my entire career to Bill and his knowledge of the game, and how he can find little diamonds in the rough,” Clark recalled three years ago. “I love him. His name’s still in my phone, even though he passed on. He changed my life forever.”

Clark may have been an unpolished talent, but he wasn’t “little.” He was 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and although he was known as a “possession receiver,” which is a sportswriting euphemism for “slow white guy,” he wasn’t all that slow and he had what basketball players call “ups” — as a high-jumper in high school, Clark could really sky — a skill that came in handy the day Joe Montana lofted that high pass in the back of the end zone.

Clark was a “catch” in another way, too. He was handsome and socially smooth. In college, teammates dubbed him the “Heartbreak Kid,” and in San Francisco, his relationship with Miss Universe of 1980 was tabloid fodder.

After the Super Bowl, however, Clark met a more downhome woman, got married, had kids, and settled down. He left the 49ers’ front office for a similar job with the Cleveland Browns, then changed careers in midlife, going back to the Carolinas … where he lost his fortune in real estate.

He hocked his Super Bowl rings, went through a difficult divorce, and was wondering how he was going to pay his bills when $5,000 showed up in the mail one day. It was from former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who’d heard Clark was down on his luck. Eddie D invited Clark to come back West, where he was still beloved. The former wide receiver took this advice, went to work for the 49ers Foundation helping at-risk kids, found a home in the beachside town of Capitola, remarried and found peace again.

It was just in time. In the spring of 2017, Dwight Clark was diagnosed with ALS. The guys he played with rallied around him — the old 49ers were that kind of team — but the diagnosis wasn’t something Clark could beat. He died last June, at 61 years of age. “I’m heartbroken to tell you that today I lost my best friend and husband,” his wife Kelly wrote on Dwight’s Facebook page. “He passed peacefully surrounded by many of the people he loved most.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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